Project Veritas could face legal liability for postal worker's ballot fraud allegations, experts say

Roger Sollenberger
·11 min read

Boxes of envelopes for ballots at the election office in Erie, Pennsylvania, on October 15, 2020. Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post via Getty Images

This article originally appeared here on Salon.com

A Pennsylvania postal worker who initially alleged that a postmaster had tampered with mail ballots — an accusation embraced by Republicans as evidence of an unfair election — told federal investigators in a recorded interview that his sworn affidavit had been written by Project Veritas, and that he could no longer stand by his statement.

After congressional investigators said on Tuesday that the postal worker, Richard Hopkins, had "completely" recanted his allegation, Project Veritas posted a video of Hopkins denying that he had done so.

"I'm here to say I did not recant my statements," Hopkins said in the video. "That did not happen."

The next day, Project Veritas posted a two-hour audio clip of Hopkins' interview with U.S. Postal Service investigators, apparently in the belief that it would bolster Hopkins' case and show that investigators had manipulated him into confessing.

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The audio recording, which Hopkins himself made secretly and Salon has reviewed, does not indicate that, however. Hopkins repeatedly disavows any first-hand knowledge of misconduct by the postmaster, saying instead that his allegation was largely an assumption, drawn from pieces of a conversation he overheard amid the noise of a mail processing facility.

"I didn't specifically overhear the whole story. I just heard a part of it," Hopkins said in the recording. "And I could have missed a lot of it."

"My mind probably added the rest. I understand that," he said at another point, adding: "All it is is hearsay, and that's the worst part."

When an agent asked Hopkins in the recording if he would still swear to the affidavit's claim that the postmaster "was back-dating ballots," he replied: "At this point? No."

Hopkins also told the federal agents that the affidavit, which he signed under penalty of law and which was later provided to the Trump campaign and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., had been written by Project Veritas.

Because he had signed the document in a state of "so much shock," Hopkins said, "I wasn't paying that much attention to what [Project Veritas] were telling me."

In an email to Salon, a Project Veritas spokesperson described the group's draft of the affidavit as "starter text" that Hopkins later "revised and discussed" with them. When asked how Hopkins' input had changed the text, the spokesperson responded that "Hopkins was the author of the affidavit" — apparently contradicting Hopkins' statement that Project Veritas had written it.

Hopkins also expressed remorse for how the saga had affected his supervisor, who has received death threats as a result of the amplification of the allegations.

"That's f**ked," Hopkins said, according to the audio.

To be clear, there is no evidence of significant or widespread voter fraud in the presidential election, which was clearly won by President-elect Joe Biden. President Trump's campaign has filed at least a dozen lawsuits since Election Day. Most have been dropped or dismissed, and none is remotely likely to change the result in any individual state, let alone the Electoral College count. 

Recounts in statewide elections rarely shift more than a few hundred votes, and almost never overturn established results. Biden defeated Trump in Pennsylvania by more than 60,000 votes, according to the official count as of Friday. Hopkins' allegation was about one single ballot.

Barry Burden, political science professor and director of the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin, lamented the accusation and its subsequent politicization in the context of a broader assault on the integrity of the country's election systems.

"It is a sad situation that those who loudly raise questions about the validity of the election are relying on sketchy and sometimes fabricated incidents such as these to justify their reluctance to accept the results," Burden told Salon.

Legal experts told Salon that if Hopkins' allegations of ballot tampering are in fact unsubstantiated, he and Project Veritas could both be criminally liable in the case.

"The postal worker signed the affidavit under penalty of law, but if these accusations are indeed false, Project Veritas could also potentially be on the hook for defamation," Jon Sherman, senior counsel at the Fair Elections Center, told Salon. "If those allegations are false, then they have defamed the Erie postmaster by falsely accusing him of instructing people to backdate ballots."

"It could be witness tampering or suborning perjury, depending on the facts and Pennsylvania state law defining those crimes," another election law attorney told Salon on condition of anonymity.

Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, an election law expert and professor at Stetson University, outlined in an email to Salon the possible legal ramifications at both federal and state levels.

"If this was done before a federal court then there's a strong argument that it would violate 18 U.S. Code § 1622 as a subornation of perjury," Torres-Spelliscy said. "If it were before a state court then it could be illegal as perjury under the Pennsylvania statutes."

Torres-Spelliscy added that Hopkins' retraction may qualify for an exemption under Pennsylvania law, as long as his statement was changed before it could "substantially affect" legal proceedings.

But the Trump campaign cited Hopkins' allegations in a federal lawsuit filed on Monday to block Pennsylvania from certifying the election results.

"He filed a very detailed affidavit. He named names. He described explicitly what it is that he experienced. And we don't know what kind of pressure he has been under since he publicly made those statements," Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh told reporters on Tuesday evening.

The available audio, however, does not present a complete record of Hopkins' interview with postal investigators. Project Veritas — which The Washington Post describes as "an organization that uses deceptive tactics to expose what it says is liberal bias and corruption in the mainstream media and government" — did not publish the full interview, which according to Veritas ran three hours, an hour longer than the version posted online.

When Salon reached out to Project Veritas for comment, communications director Neil McCabe initially replied, "I want to caution about republishing libel or falsehoods about James O'Keefe and Project Veritas." O'Keefe founded Project Veritas in 2010, after previously working for Andrew Breitbart, the late founder of Breitbart News. The organization defines its mission as "to investigate and expose corruption, dishonesty, self-dealing, waste, fraud, and other misconduct in both public and private institutions in order to achieve a more ethical and transparent society." It is best known for undercover video and audio recordings targeting media organizations and liberal groups.

McCabe added in his preface that the group "is not a right-wing or conservative organization."

"In the past year, we have reported on Republicans and Democrats," he said.

He also claimed that "we are not activists, we are journalists," and insisted that "we do not deceptively edit video, although that is often repeated."

"We are suing The New York Times for defamation and libel for stories that they posted about us," McCabe added, without providing specifics. "Before we filed, the paper's deputy general counsel wrote to us that their reporting was speculation, not fact, and that the academics they cited were also speculating."

McCabe may be referring to a New York Times report from September, in which a group of Stanford University researchers concluded that a Project Veritas video accusing Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., of voter fraud was part of a "coordinated disinformation campaign."

Later, in an emailed statement to Salon, Jared Ede, chief legal officer at Project Veritas, accused the Washington Post of witness intimidation. Ede also claimed that Veritas lawyers had been retained to represent Hopkins, though he would not verify that claim. (Hopkins told investigators that Project Veritas had lawyers ready if anything went "haywire," but said he had no personal representation.)

Here is Ede's statement in full:

In this country, we have rights, including the rights to representation when we are being interrogated.  The inspectors who interrogated Hopkins for three hours know better but refused to let Hopkins speak with the attorneys he unequivocally disclosed were "on retention for [him] … in case there's anything that happens[.]". They then refused to leave him alone or let him speak to anyone until he executed a watered-down statement drafted by them using their words (even overruling his objections as to the wording). 

To top it off, they refused to provide him a copy of what they forced him to sign, refuse to take Mr. Hopkins' calls, and have not even given Mr. Hopkins' attorneys a copy of the statement. 

As you heard, the inspectors then warned Mr. Hopkins not to discuss the investigation, all while their findings were being leaked to The Washington Post.  As The Post says, democracy dies in darkness.  It used to be The Post offered this as a warning — now it appears to be a motto as they coordinate to intimidate witnesses who dare defend the integrity of our democracy. 

Asked specifically whether Ede's remarks rose to the level of accusing the Post of the crimes of witness intimidation and conspiracy to do the same, Anne Champion, a First Amendment attorney at Gibson Dunn, told Salon that she believed so.

"Yes, I think it is an accusation," Champion said. "They flat out say that The Post is 'coordinat[ing] to intimidate witnesses,' and the implication is obviously that they are 'coordinat[ing]' with the 'inspectors' who were allegedly 'leak[ing]' to The Post information about the investigation which the inspectors 'warned Mr. Hopkins not to discuss.'"

Champion added that she did not think the facts supported Ede's accusation.

"Some wrongful means is necessary to constitute witness intimidation — it can't just be that you interrogated someone, told them to maintain confidentiality and had them sign a statement regarding what they said. There is nothing wrongful there," she said. "There needs to be improper influence, a threat, a bribe or some improper attempt to instill fear if the witness doesn't testify in a certain way."

McCabe, the group's communications director, told Salon that Hopkins' affidavit had been "drafted based on Mr. Hopkins' Nov. 5 and 6 statements to James O'Keefe to create some starter text, which Mr. Hopkins revised and discussed with Project Veritas. His affidavit was consistent with his public statements and the narrative he gave Agent Klein on Nov. 6.  No further comment is offered."

When Salon asked how Hopkins' revisions had changed the content between the first draft and the final text of the affidavit, McCabe responded: "Hopkins approved the affidavit, because Hopkins was the author of the affidavit."

Ede later wrote in an email, "If you intend to print that what we have told you contradicts what we have previously confirmed, you had best have evidence. I also warn that accusing us of committing crimes is in many jurisdictions considered defamation per se."

In Hopkins' interview with investigators, one federal agent tells Hopkins — who is now on unpaid leave and started a GoFundMe out of fear he might lose his job — that the Postal Service had an interest in protecting him against possible future charges that he had traded on his false claims to defraud donors.

Hopkins makes clear in the recording that while Project Veritas came up with the fundraiser idea, it was his own page and the group was taking no money. (GoFundMe deactivated Hopkins' page soon after news of his interview with investigators broke.)

On Sunday, the day before Hopkins told his story to federal investigators, Project Veritas announced it would award $25,000 for "tips related to election, voter and ballot fraud in Pennsylvania."

Hopkins has since then reasserted his initial allegation on the new fundraising site: "I am willing to testify under oath that my supervisors ordered workers including myself to deliver ballots received after November 3rd in order to 'back date' so they would still be accepted in the 2020 Presidential Election."

Asked whether Project Veritas planned to give Hopkins the $25,000 reward — and whether Hopkins had ever been under the impression that he might receive the money — Ede did not answer directly, but offered this response: "Project Veritas has and always will support and protect its sources to the fullest extent of the law," adding that the group encourages whistleblowers to reach out.

On Thursday, O'Keefe, the founder of Project Veritas, shared a new account Hopkins had opened on the Christian crowdfunding site GiveSendGo.

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"Thank You, James O'Keefe and Project Veritas for letting me tell my story when others wouldn't," Hopkins writes in his personal note on the page. "Please support me as I go forward with this battle."

As of this writing, the page had raised $215,301 toward its $250,000 goal, gathered from 5,223 donations. It has also accrued 2,272 "pray now" clicks.